Movie Diary 5/31/2023

The Cry Baby Killer (Justus Addiss, 1958). All my life, this one has been sitting at the top of Jack Nicholson’s filmography, his feature debut, its hotsy title promising a punchy, pulpy good time – and Nicholson is second-billed in it, not just the third hoodlum from the left. So I finally watched it, and there’s a reason it doesn’t get talked about much. For the first 10 of its 70 minutes it gets some decent juvenile-delinquent energy going: Nicholson roughed up by a band of punks in the opening sequence, followed by confrontational action in a diner where the owner sells hooch to the teens. After that, it’s a dullish stand-off, as Nicholson gets a gun and takes hostages, and cops and media converge. Roger Corman executive-produced, and does a walk-on bit; Leo Gordon co-wrote the screenplay, and does a slightly-more-than-walk-on bit. Gordon’s wife, Lynn Cartwright, is quite good as a philosophical waitress, and Carolyn Mitchell (#5 wife to Mickey Rooney) plays the doll caught between Nicholson and gang chief Brett Halsey. (Every person mentioned in that sentence had an interesting life, by the way.) Nicholson is, shall we say, unpolished, but the explosiveness is there, and you can see that if this guy grows into his face, he could be interesting. Photographed by Floyd Crosby, not working any miracles. The theme song predicts the “Black Leather Rock” number from These Are the Damned.

Movie Diary 5/30/2023

Love with the Proper Stranger (Robert Mulligan, 1963). This is the picture Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula did after To Kill a Mockingbird, a strange number in almost every way. It’s a romcom (feisty Italian-American Natalie Wood, who works at the counter at Macy’s, goes back and forth with footloose sax player Steve McQueen) but it’s also an “adult” drama (she’s pregnant from a one-night stand he doesn’t remember, and seeks an illegal abortion with his help). McQueen gets twitchy as he sometimes does in comedy (Bosley Crowther: “He’s a face-squinching simpleton, for my money”), but Wood is engaged in a way she rarely matched, as a character who is not at all just a nice girl-next-door. A few scenes stand out for their living-in-the-city density: McQueen visiting his parents at an asphalt park next to the roaring FDR Drive, a conversation in the pet department of Macy’s with the animals chattering in the background. But almost from the beginning, the timing feels off – there are far too many deep, significant pauses, an indulgent rhythm that grinds everything down. The sequence with an abortionist is legitimately sad and stark, even if the movie has a hard time recovering its feet after that. Wood’s over-protective brother, Herschel Bernardi, feels dragged in from a more Freudian movie, and Edie Adams plays a stripper called “Barbara of Seville.” It got five Oscar nominations, for Wood, Arnold Schulman’s script, Edith Head’s costumes, Milt Krasner’s cinematography (very early-60s “look at the NYC locations, and hey, we got a zoom lens”), and art direction. But not for Elmer Bernstein’s music, which has its moments.

Movie Diary 5/29/2023

Blackout (Terence Fisher, 1954). Not-bad British noir about a drunk American (Dane Clark) mixed up with a formidable blond femme fatale (the unhappily-lived Belinda Lee). He wakes up from his blackout married, with a wad of cash in his pocket, in a stranger’s apartment. Oh, and someone is dead. Good fit for Dane Clark, who doesn’t know how to fix tea in the English manner – a patiently executed culture-clash joke – but can credibly throw a punch. He has chemistry with Eleanor Summerfield, the possibly-lavender-coded stranger who owns the flat, and in fact the cast is full of interesting women who do a lot with brief screentime: Betty Ann Davies as the femme’s mom, Alvys Maben as a deadpan secretary, Jill Melford as a kooky moll, and (in the opening scene) Cleo Laine singing jazz. Fisher knows how to compose for suspense, without trying to do a Hitchcock. Disappointing ending; with all the women around, Clark makes a dubious decision – but then, his character is established as a collection of dumbass choices, so why change now?

Alice (Woody Allen, 1990). Gentle supernatural whimsy, and it must be said that Mia Farrow has a handful of really terrific scenes. Otherwise, I don’t respond to this one, and it’s the point where Allen’s ability to cast anybody he wanted becomes almost distracting; William Hurt has very little to do but be distant at Farrow’s husband, and the presence of a movie star in the role just seems like a waste. Alec Baldwin as the ghost of Farrow’s youthful lover works nicely, on the other hand. When it came out, I wrote, “Is it going too far to suggest that Allen might profitably work with another leading actress once in a while?” It wouldn’t take too long after that.

Movie Diary 5/28/2023

Thirteen Lives (Ron Howard, 2022). Howard is on his best behavior, tamping down his tendency to hype – in many ways, it’s less manipulative than The Rescue, the documentary about the Thai kids trapped in the cave. The true story is astonishing, and even if the storytelling strategies are formulaic, the movie does its job. Smart: casting Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, very effectively working in different modes. A satisfying “process movie.”

Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989). When Landau goes to his lover’s apartment, and there’s a cut to a corpse lying on the floor, it’s especially cold and jolting because you’re watching a Woody Allen movie – this is just not what we’re used to seeing in this world. A thought on seeing this for the third-or-so time: The film is obsessed with siblings, with connections and things owed to family. Somehow this gives depth to the movie’s system, in a way that isn’t always true in Allen’s universe.

Movie Diary 5/25/2023

Doing this, tonight! Scarecrow Video’s Zeitgeist ’23! presents “Beyond HAL: Artificial Intelligence in Movies,” a look at the history of AI in film. We convene at 7 pm Pacific Time; register here.

The Friday 5/19/2023

My piece for the Scarecrow blog this week, and etc.


I have another Scarecrow Video Zeitgeist ’23! free online talk coming up next week, Thursday May 25, at 7 pm Pacific Time. This one’s about the history of artificial intelligence in movies. Register here.

Movie Diary 5/16/2023

Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972). Tough, strange, mournful, non-didactic western, written by the talented and mysterious Alan Sharp. Plenty of Vietnam overtones at play, but the movie is never just that – nobody comes out unscathed, really. Burt Lancaster has one of his best roles, and his physical presence is huge, still a big man, but exhausted.

Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952). You really have to be watching this rigorously rendered series of forceful spaces, as Lang plays out his revenge story in an elemental way: interiors, doorways, false corners of the desert, people standing in mathematical ways. All arranged around Marlene Dietrich, herself something of an abstract construct. Truly dizzying.

Movie Diary 5/15/2023

Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964). In some ways this is Ford’s Schindler’s List, a film so driven by its desire to be a document of historical urgency that it softens the usual keen storytelling instincts of its director (the account here is a rebellion of displaced Cheyenne people in 1878). Except that Schindler’s List was a significant cultural milestone, and this one a box-office failure. It is certainly full of beautiful moments, including some of those miraculous events that Ford would somehow capture on camera, such as the moment when cavalryman Richard Widmark is standing by a brush fire and the two covered wagons near him bloom into flames. Also much in evidence is Ford’s feeling for the beauty of gestures (both behavioral and physical) and giving supporting players their turns to shine – Mike Mazurki, Dolores del Rio, Sean McClory, and for sure Ben Johnson (some of the horse stunts in this thing are astounding). This is personal filmmaking, even though it is a historical document.

Dead for a Dollar (Walter Hill, 2022). Clean lines for a western, as bounty hunter Christoph Waltz (who seems to really get the western) travels to retrieve a kidnapped – but actually runaway – wife (Rachel Brosnahan), while eventually having to fend off a resentful former quarry (Willem Dafoe). One wishes for a slightly larger budget, and yet the strapped circumstances enhance the sense of elemental forces being played out. A good job of work.

Movie Diary 5/14/2023

No Name on the Bullet (Jack Arnold, 1959). Audie Murphy plays a renowned assassin who rides into town, causing the locals to freak out with fear. It’s a great, modern idea for a picture, kind of a sideways High Noon: Murphy needs to do almost nothing for the townspeople to start destroying themselves. He’s good in this one, clad in black and blue and considered in his movements. I wish the movie were livelier; something about the widescreen seems to slow everything down. Arnold was a couple of years past The Incredible Shrinking Man and just about to get into TV in a big way.

A Time for Dying (Budd Boetticher, 1969). One of the most bizarre “late movies” ever made by a good director, a low budget western with Victor Jory in absolutely demented form as Judge Roy Bean and producer Audie Murphy in a graceful cameo as Jesse James. The casting of the lead roles is catastrophic, the tone is all over the place, and some of the ideas are intriguing. The ending is very 1969, a true “fuck off” from a project that apparently was meant to be a tax write-off.

The Friday 5/12/2023

Carey Mulligan: Promising Young Woman (Universal)

My piece for the Scarecrow blog this week, and etc.

2023 Seattle International Film Festival preview.

Join us tomorrow, Saturday 5/13 at 2 pm Pacific Time, for the final session in Scarecrow Academy’s spring semester devoted to “Women in Trouble.” This free online conversation will concern Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-winning 2020 film Promising Young Woman. Register here.

And heads up: I’m giving an online talk as part of Scarecrow’s Zeitgeist ’23! series, this one titled “Beyond HAL: Artificial Intelligence in Movies.” This will happen Thursday May 25 at 7 pm Pacific Time, and it’s free. Register here and learn more, before it’s too late for all of us.